George Ley: The Big Interview

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He snubbed Arsenal as a teenager, beat namesake George Best to be voted the best looking man in football and went toe-to-toe with the great Pele.

But for ‘gorgeous George’ Ley, his greatest memories of the beautiful game came at beloved Pompey – and are continuing at the age of 68.

The former Fratton favourite, who represented the Blues on 204 occasions during a six-year south-coast stay between 1967 and 1972 will be inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in March next year.

And Ley, who operated primarily as a left-back at PO4 but possessed a powerful shot that saw him score 10 goals – including a memorable FA Cup strike against the Gunners – is equally overwhelmed and honoured to receive the accolade.

He said: ‘To be voted among the cream of the crop at Pompey is my proudest moment in football.

‘It is the ultimate honour.

‘The fans live the game on the field and kick every ball out there with you and to know they appreciate you is a great and truly humbling feeling.’

Ley, who now lives in Austin, Texas will make the trip across the Atlantic in three months – five decades on from his 1967 transfer from local club Exeter.

He reflected: ‘As a kid I had a trial at Arsenal and played six or so games for their youth team.

‘They actually had me in the office and wanted to sign me.

‘But with no real help from anyone on my side I told them: “You’ve got six left-sided players already at your club – I don’t think you really need me.”

‘I was a 16-year-old turning down Arsenal!

‘The great Billy Wright was their manager and I was telling him that, actually, I wanted to go on trial with Exeter and play for them because they were my local club.

‘That’s exactly what happened, although the status of both clubs were miles apart!’

Ley played 93 times for the third-tier Devon side before second-division Pompey came calling at the end of the 1966-67 season.

An £8,000 fee was agreed for the promising 21-year-old, although permission from the Football League had to be obtained to grant Ley, who had been signed outside of the transfer window, his debut in the final game of the campaign.

Huddersfield were the opponents for an eye-opening Blues bow.

Ley said: ‘I still remember the game because Huddersfield had a winger called Mike Hellawell who had played for England.

‘He could have been an Olympic 100m sprinter – he went round me once and by the time I had turned he was 20 yards past me!

‘I thought: “Thank goodness this is the last game of the season because if this what playing in the second division means, this is going to be too much for me”.’

Ley soon acclimatised, though, with the 1967-68 campaign an impressive one for the Blues, who finished in fifth place after threatening for promotion.

Ever-present Ley said: ‘We only had 18 players on the books and at Easter time we were still in with a really good chance of promotion.

‘But then two or three first-teamers got injured.

‘Some of the lads who hadn’t been playing were called into action and we were facing three games in five days.

‘Unfortunately, it took its toll and we lost any chance of going up.’

Individual success arrived for Ley, though, albeit in unusual fashion.

The Football League review – a free matchday programme pull-out – ran a poll asking fans to vote for the best looking footballer in the country, with Ley pipping Man United winger Best to the award.

The latter was forced to make do with a European footballer of the year trophy instead, although the two Georges became good friends in later years, playing football together in the States.

Any hopes Ley had of a potentially profitable male modelling venture, though, were snuffed out by no-nonsense Blues boss George Smith.

Ley said: ‘One time, some guy came down to the training ground representing a male modelling company, and I thought: “I could make myself a bit of extra money.”

‘But the manager George Smith frightened him away.

‘He said: “He (Ley) is here to play football – he isn’t a film star.”

‘That was the end of me trying to be David Beckham!’

Ley’s consistent performances attracted attention on the pitch, though, as top-flight Ipswich came calling in the summer of 1970.

He said: ‘There was a chance I could have signed for Ipswich.

‘I went up and looked at it and thought the status of the two clubs were about the same size in stature.

‘I then thought: “There is no advantage for me to leave an environment I’m happy in to go and test myself up at Ipswich.”

‘That wasn’t very professional!

‘I should have been more ambitious and thought: “I want to go up there and play against all the best clubs.”

‘But Portsmouth was home to me – that’s the big difference.’

Ley signed a three-year contract to commit his future to the Blues, but admitted that a lack of real competition for places led to a level of complacency creeping into his game.

An increasing demand on him to play further up the pitch was also a contributing factor to a surprise south-coast switch to Brighton in 1972.

But not before Ley had enjoyed his crowning moment in a Blues shirt.

He was part of Ron Tindall’s side who took eventual double winners Arsenal to an FA Cup replay in 1970-71, scoring a ferocious second-half equaliser at Highbury in a narrow 3-2 defeat.

Ley said: ‘I whacked it from about 25-30 yards – I had a good left foot!

‘We got it to 2-2 but lost it right on the whistle at the end.

‘They were the best team in England and sadly we didn’t quite have enough armoury to hold out.

‘I think over time I then got a little bit complacent because the team was still operating with 18 players so there was no threat for me to be displaced as there were no youngsters coming through.

‘In fact, I also played in midfield a fair bit and although I was okay on the defensive side – tackling and winning the ball – I felt I lacked the skill required to be creative further up the pitch.

‘It’s a lot easier to play at full back – you don’t have to run around as much!’

With a heavy heart, Ley made the decision to depart PO4 in the quest for a new challenge and a reunion with former Blues

team-mate Brian Bromley.

Ley said: ‘One of my best mates Brian Bromley had gone to Brighton and they had just won promotion.

‘He used to play just in front of me in midfield when I was at full back, that was one of the reasons why I left – to go and play with Brom again in that position.’

Ley did not settle at the Seagulls, though, and at the age of 28, boldly left the UK behind to ply his trade in the Lone Star State of Texas, USA, where he still resides to this day.

Dallas Tornado, of the North American Soccer League, offered Ley the opportunity to come face to face with many of the game’s greats, including Best and Pele.

He said: ‘Pele was the best player ever because he was always a few steps ahead of the game and I can’t speak highly enough of George, on and off the field.

‘But for me in football, nothing ever beat the buzz of running out at a packed Fratton Park.

‘I can’t wait to revisit my spiritual home and join an illustrious list of greats to have worn the blue shirt before me in the club’s Hall of Fame.’

GEORGE LEY on...

...AWAKENING THE ARSENAL BEAST

My most famous goal for Pompey was against Arsenal in an FA Cup replay.

We lost the game 3-2 in the end to a side that went on to win the double (1971), although my goal made it 2-2 at Highbury to give us hope of an upset.

We actually went 1-0 up early on as well but all of a sudden Arsenal’s game went up about four levels.

I think they must have had about six consecutive corners at one stage.

I was on the near post defending franticly with Norman Piper and I can remember saying to him: ‘Hey Norm, I think we scored too early didn’t we?”

He turned around, smiled and said: “What have we done to the lion?”

Sadly, we didn’t quite have enough armoury to hold out.

...THE FRIENDLY FRATTON FAITHFUL

After the game we would go into the players’ lounge, although it should have been called the supporters’ lounge because you’d go in and be greeted with fans buying you a pint for playing well.

You’d stand there and have a good, honest chat to them – it was lovely.

I never went in there if we lost, though!

...ADAPTABLE ALBERT

We only had 18 players on the books at Pompey but had some talented footballers like Nicky Jennings, Charlie (Ray) Hiron and Albert McCann, who could play in four different positions and hold his own.

He should have been paid four lots of wages as every time someone got injured he would go and fill their position.